Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality Among Men, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

To the Republic of Geneva
Magnificent, most honorable, and sovereign lords

Convinced that only the virtuous citizen may justifiably give his native land honours which it can accept, I have been working for thirty years to become worthy of offering you public homage; and since this happy occasion supplements in part what my efforts have not been able to accomplish, I believed that I would be permitted here to follow the zeal which animates me rather than the right which ought to act as my authorization. Having had the good fortune to be born among you, how could I reflect on the equality which nature has set among men and on the inequality which they have instituted, without thinking about the profound wisdom with which both of these, happily combined in this State, work together in a manner most closely approaching natural law and most favourable to society to maintain public order and the happiness of individuals? As I was conducting research into the best maxims which good sense could set down concerning the constitution of a government, I was so struck by seeing them all at work in yours that, even if I had not been born within your walls, I do not believe I would have been able to forego offering this picture of human society to those who, among all peoples, seem to me to possess society’s greatest advantages and to have best avoided its abuses.

If I had had to choose the place where I was born, I would have selected a society whose size was limited by the extent of human faculties, that is, by the possibility of being well governed, and where each man was competent in his job, so that no one would be compelled to delegate to others the functions to which he was assigned, a state where, because all the individuals knew each other, the obscure maneuvers of vice and the modesty of virtue would not be able to conceal themselves from the view and judgment of the public, and where this sweet habit of seeing and knowing each other made love of one’s native land love of the citizens rather than love of the soil.

I would have wanted to be born in a country where the sovereign and the people could have only one and the same interest, so that all the movements of the machine would never tend to do anything except for the general happiness, and since that would not be possible to do unless the people and the sovereign were the same person, it follows that I would have wished to be born under a democratic government, wisely tempered.

I would have wanted to live and die free, that is, sufficiently subject to laws so that neither I nor anyone else would be able to shake off their honorable yoke, that beneficial and mild yoke, which the proudest heads carry all the more obediently because they are made to carry no other.

Thus, I would have wished that no one in the state could assert that he was above the law and that no one outside would be able to impose any law that the state was obliged to recognize. For no matter what the constitution of a government may be, if there is a single man who is not subject to the law, all the others are necessarily at his discretion (1), and if there is a national leader and another foreign leader, no matter how they may divide up the authority between them, it is impossible for both of them to be properly obeyed and for the state to be well governed.

I would not have wanted to live in a newly instituted republic, no matter how good the laws it might have, for fear that, since the government might perhaps be set up in a way different from what would be necessary at the time and would not be suitable for the new citizens or the citizens for the new government, the state would be subject to being undermined and destroyed almost from the moment of its birth. For with liberty, it is like those solid and delicious foods or those robust wines which are appropriate to nourish and strengthen healthy temperaments which are used to them but which overwhelm, ruin, and intoxicate the weak and delicate who are not made for them. Once peoples have grown accustomed to masters, they are no longer in a condition where they can do without them. If they attempt to shake off the yoke, they distance themselves even further from freedom, because they confuse liberty with an unbridled license which is its opposite, and so their revolutions almost always deliver them over to seducers who merely make their chains worse. Even the Roman population, that model of all free people, was not in a condition to govern itself when it came out from under the oppression of the Tarquins.* Debased by the slavery and the ignominious work which had been imposed on the people, at first they were only a stupid rabble, which had to be organized and governed with the greatest wisdom, so that, as they gradually grew accustomed to breathe the healthy air of liberty, these souls, enervated or, rather, brutalized under tyranny, by degrees acquired that strictness of morality and that pride in their courage which finally made them the most respectable of all peoples. Hence, I would have sought out for my native land a happy and peaceful republic whose antiquity was in a way lost in the night of time, which had gone through only those problems suitable for demonstrating and affirming among its inhabitants courage and love of country, and where the citizens, accustomed for a long time to a wise independence, were not only free but worthy of being free.

* Tarquins: In Rome’s very early history the citizens were ruled by an Etruscan clan called the Tarquins.

I would have wanted to choose for myself a native land diverted by a happy lack of power from the ferocious love of conquests and guaranteed by a location even more fortunate from the fear of itself becoming the conquest of another state, a free city situated among several people, none of whom had an interest in invading it and each of them keen to prevent others from doing so themselves, a republic, in short, which did not tempt the ambition of its neighbours and which could reasonably count on their assistance in times of need. In such a happy situation it follows that it would have had nothing to fear except itself, and that if its citizens were trained in using weapons, this would be to maintain among them that warrior spirit and that pride in courage which are so well suited to liberty and which nourish the taste for it, rather than from the need to provide their own defense.

I would have searched for a country where the legislative right was common to all citizens. For who can understand better than they can the conditions under which it is appropriate for them to live together in the same society? But I would not have approved of plebiscites like those of the Romans, where the chiefs of state and those most interested in its preservation were excluded from the deliberations on which its security frequently depended and where, by an absurd inconsistency, the magistrates were deprived of rights which simple citizens enjoyed.

On the contrary, I would have desired that, in order to stop self-interested and badly conceived projects and the dangerous innovations which finally ruined the Athenians, no single man had the power to propose new laws according to his fantasy, that this right belonged only to the magistrates, that even they made use of it with such circumspection and the people, for their part, were so reluctant about giving their consent to these laws, that the promulgation of such laws could be carried out only with much solemnity, so that before the constitution was undermined they would have had the time to be convinced that it was above all the great antiquity of the laws which rendered them sacred and venerable, that people soon distrusted laws which they saw changing every day, and that, by growing used to neglecting ancient customs under the pretext of making things better, one often introduces great evils in order to correct lesser ones.

Above all, on the ground that it was necessarily ill governed, I would have run away from a republic where the people, believing they could dispense with their magistrates or give them merely a precarious authority, would have imprudently kept control of the administration of civil matters and the execution of their own laws. Something like that must have been the rudimentary constitution of the first governments which emerged immediately from the state of nature and something like that was, once again, one of the vices which ruined the republic of Athens.

But I would have chosen one where the individuals, contenting themselves with giving their sanction to the laws and deciding as a collective body and upon the motion of the leaders the most important public issues, would establish respected tribunals, distinguish with care their various departments, elect year by year the most capable of their fellow citizens with the most integrity to administer justice and govern the state, and where the virtue of the magistrates in this way bore witness to the wisdom of the people, so that they both mutually honoured each other. Thus, if ever some fatal misunderstandings came to trouble public harmony, even these times of blindness and errors would be characterized by evidence of moderation, reciprocal esteem, and a common respect for the laws, harbingers and guarantees of a sincere and permanent reconciliation.

These are, MAGNIFICENT, MOST HONOURABLE, AND SOVEREIGN LORDS, the sort of advantages which I would have looked for in the native land which I would have chosen for myself. And if providence had added to these a charming location, a temperate climate, a fertile countryside, and the most delightful appearance under heaven, I would have desired only to have my fill of happiness by enjoying all these benefits in the bosom of this happy native land, living peacefully in a sweet society with my fellow citizens, practising towards them, following their own example, humanity, friendship, and all the virtues, and leaving after me the honourable memory of a good man, a decent and virtuous patriot.

If, less happy or wise too late, I had seen myself reduced to end an infirm and languishing career in other climates, vainly regretting the peace and quiet which my imprudent youth took away from me, I would have at least nourished in my soul these same feelings which I could not put to use in my country, and filled with a tender and disinterested affection for my distant fellow citizens, I would have delivered to them from the bottom of my heart something close to the following discourse.

My dear fellow citizens, or rather my brothers, since the ties of blood as well as of the laws unite almost all of us, it is pleasant for me not to be able to think of you without at the same time thinking about all the benefits which you enjoy and whose value none of you perhaps feels more than I, who have lost them. The more I think about your political and civil situation, the less I can imagine that the nature of human affairs could include anything better. In all other governments, when it is a question of securing the greatest benefit for the state, everything is always limited to imaginary projects, at most to mere possibilities. For you, your well being is completely established. You do not need to do anything but enjoy it, and you have no further need to become perfectly happy other than to know how you can be content with being so. Your sovereignty, acquired or recovered by the point of a sword and preserved for two centuries by the power of your merit and wisdom, is finally recognized fully and universally. Honourable treaties determine your boundaries, assure your rights, and strengthen your peace. Your constitution is excellent, set down by most sublime reason and guaranteed by friendly and respected powers. Your state is tranquil; you have neither wars nor conquerors to fear. You have no masters, other than the wise laws you have made, administered by magistrates with integrity whom you have chosen. You are neither rich enough to be enervated by soft living and with vain delights to lose the taste of true happiness and solid virtues, nor so poor that you need more help from foreigners than your own industry procures for you. And this precious liberty, which in great nations is maintained only with exorbitant taxation, costs you almost nothing to preserve.

May a republic so wisely and so happily constituted last eternally for the happiness of its citizens and as an example to people! This is the only wish which remains for you to make and the only precaution left for you to take. From now on it is up to you alone, not to make your own happiness, for your ancestors have spared you the trouble of that, but to make it endure by the wisdom of using it well. Your preservation depends on your perpetual union, your obedience to the laws, and your respect for their ministers. If there remains among you the least germ of bitterness or defiance, hurry up and destroy it as a deadly leavening agent which sooner or later would result in your unhappiness and the ruin of the state. I beg you all to go deep into your hearts and consult the secret voice of your conscience. Does anyone among you recognize in the universe a body more honourable, more enlightened, and more respectable than that of your public administration? Do not all its members offer you examples of moderation, simplicity of morals, respect for the laws, and the most sincere reconciliation? So render to such wise leaders without reserve that healthy confidence which reason owes to virtue. Bear in mind that they are your choice, that they justify that choice, and that the honours due to those whom you have dignified necessarily reflect back on you yourselves. None of you is so unenlightened that you do not know that where the vigour of the laws and the authority of their defenders cease there can be neither security nor liberty for anyone. Then what is of concern among you other than to carry out with a good heart and a just confidence what you would always be obliged to do by genuine interest, by duty, and by reason? Let no culpable and fatal indifference to the maintenance of the constitution ever make you neglect, in case of need, the wise counsels of the most enlightened and the most zealous among you. But may equity, moderation, and the most respectful firmness continue to regulate every step you take and to manifest in you to all the universe the example of a proud and modest people, as jealous of its glory as of its liberty. Take care above all — and this will be my last piece of advice — never to listen to sinister interpretations and poisonous discourses, whose secret motives are often more dangerous than the actions which they are promoting. An entire house wakes up and responds with alarm to the first cries of a good and faithful guardian who barks only at the approach of thieves, but we hate the importunity of those animals which bark and never stop disturbing the public peace and whose constant and inappropriate warnings are not heard, even at the moment when they are necessary.

And you MAGNIFICENT AND MOST HONOURABLE LORDS, you worthy and respectable magistrates of a free people, permit me to offer my homage and my respects especially to you. If there is in the world a rank suited to ennobling those who hold it, it is undoubtedly the one which talents and virtue confer, the one of which you have made yourselves worthy and to which your fellow citizens have raised you. Their own merit adds to your own still a new brightness. Selected by men capable of governing others so that they are governed themselves, I find you as superior to other magistrates as a free people, above all the one you have the honour of leading, is superior to the population of other states, thanks to its wisdom and its reason.

May I be permitted to cite an example for which better records should have remained and which will always be present in my heart. I cannot recall without the sweetest emotion the memory of that virtuous citizen to whom I owe my being and who in my infancy often spoke about the respect which was due to you. I see him still living from the work of his hands and feeding his soul with the most sublime truths. In front of him I see Tacitus, Plutarch, and Grotius, mixed in with the instruments of his trade.* I see at his side a beloved son receiving with too little fruit the tender instruction of the best of fathers. But if the errors of a foolish youth made me forget for a while such wise lessons, I have the happiness of feeling at last that, no matter what tendency one has towards vice, it is difficult for an education in which the heart is involved to remain lost forever.

* Tacitus was a great Roman historian, Plutarch a very famous Greek biographer (of great men), and Grotius (1583–1645) an influential Dutch writer on law.

Such are, magnificent and most honourable lords, the citizens and even the simple inhabitants born in the state which you govern; such are these educated and sensible men, about whom, under the name of workers and the people, men in other nations have such low and false ideas. My father, I affirm with joy, was not distinguished among his fellow citizens; he was only what they all are, and given the kind of man he was, there is no country where his society would not have been sought out and cultivated among the most respectable people, even for their own benefit.

It is not appropriate for me and, thanks to heaven, it is not necessary to speak to you about the respect which can be expected from you for men of that quality, your equals in education as well as by the rights of nature and of birth, your inferiors by their own will, by the preference which they owe to your merit and which they have accorded it, something for which you, in your turn, owe them some sort of acknowledgement. I learn with a lively satisfaction about how, with much gentleness and condescension, you temper for them the solemnity which befits ministers of law, how much you repay them with your esteem and attention for what they owe you in obedience and respect, behaviour full of justice and wisdom, appropriate for distancing more and more the memory of unfortunate events which it is necessary to forget in order that they are never seen again, conduct all the more judicious since this equitable and generous people makes a pleasure of its duty and naturally loves to honour you, and since those keenest to maintain their rights are the ones most inclined to respect yours.*

* This phrase “unfortunate events,” like the earlier “fatal misunderstanding” Rousseau talks about, refers to an ongoing conflict between the leading magistrates and the legislative body in Geneva at various times throughout the eighteenth century. These had been apparently resolved by the time Rousseau was writing, but disputes flared up again in the 1760’s and 1780’s.

It should not be astonishing that the leaders of a civil society love its glory and its happiness. But it is too much for the peace and quiet of men that those who think of themselves as magistrates, or rather as the masters of a holier and more sublime country, manifest some love for the earthly fatherland which nourishes them. How sweet it is for me to be able to make such a rare exception in our favour and to place in the rank of our best citizens these zealous men, trustees of sacred dogmas authorized by the laws, these venerable ministers to the soul, whose life and sweet eloquence carry the gospel maxims into the heart all the better because they always start by practising them themselves! The whole world knows how successfully the great art of the pulpit is cultivated in Geneva. But, too accustomed to seeing things said one way and done another, few people know just how far the spirit of Christianity, the sanctity of morals, the severity toward themselves, and the gentleness for others rule in the body of our ministers. Perhaps it is up to the city of Geneva alone to demonstrate the edifying example of such a perfect union between a society of theologians and men of letters. I base my hope for the permanent tranquilly of the state in large part on their wisdom, their acknowledged moderation, and their zeal for its prosperity, and I observe with a pleasure mingled with astonishment and respect how much they are horrified by the dreadful maxims of those holy and barbaric men of whom history provides more than one example, who, to maintain the so-called rights of God, that is to say, their own interests, were all the less prepared not to shed human blood because they flattered themselves that theirs would be always respected.

Could I forget that precious half of the republic which creates the happiness of the other and whose sweetness and wisdom sustain peace and good morals within it? Amiable and virtuous female citizens, the lot of your sex will always be to rule ours. What happiness when your chaste power, practised only within the conjugal union, is exercised simply for the glory of the state and for the public good. That is how women used to govern in Sparta, and that is how you deserve to govern in Geneva. What barbarous man could resist the voice of honour and reason in the mouth of a tender wife, and who would not despise vain luxury at the sight of your simple and modest finery which, through the brilliance it acquires from you, seems to be most favourable to beauty? It is up to you always to maintain by your amiable and innocent empire and by your insinuating spirit the love of the laws in the state and the harmony among its citizens, to reunite divided families by happy marriages, and above all to correct by the persuasive sweetness of your lessons and by the modest graces of your conversation the mistakes which our young people pick up from other countries, where, in place of so many useful things from which they could profit, they bring back, with a puerile tone and ridiculous airs acquired among lost women, nothing but an admiration for I know not what of would-be grandeur, frivolous compensation for their servitude, which will never have the value of noble liberty. So always be what you are, chaste guardians of morals and the mild restraints of peace, and continue to put to good use on every occasion the rights of the heart and of nature for the benefit of duty and virtue.

I flatter myself that, in basing my hope for the general happiness of the citizens and for the glory of the republic on such guarantees, I will not be proved wrong by events. I confess that with all these advantages, it will not shine with the brilliance which dazzles most eyes, whose childish and lethal taste is the most deadly enemy of happiness and liberty. Let the dissolute young seek elsewhere easy pleasures and long repentance. Let the so-called people with taste admire in other places the grandeur of palaces, the beauty of carriages, the superb furnishings, the pomp of spectacles, and all the refinements of soft living and luxury. In Geneva, one will find nothing but men, but such a sight has a real value of its own, and those who search it out are well worth the admirers of the rest.

MAGNIFICENT, MOST HONOURABLE and SOVEREIGN LORDS, may you all deign to receive with the same kindness the respectful testimonies of the interest which I take in your general prosperity. If in this lively effusion of my heart I have been so unfortunate as to be guilty of some indiscreet outbursts, I beg you to excuse that as the tender affection of a true patriot and the ardent and legitimate zeal of a man who considers that there is no greater happiness for him than to see all of you happy.

I am, with the most profound respect,


your very humble and very obedient servant and fellow citizen

JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU Chambery, 12 June 1754.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59